The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi
Title page of The Duchess of Malfi.

The Duchess of Malfi (originally published as The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy) is a macabre, tragic play written by the English dramatist John Webster in 1612–13.[1] It was first performed privately at the Blackfriars Theatre, then before a more general audience at The Globe, in 1613-14.[2] Published for the first time in 1623, the play is loosely based on true events that occurred between about 1508 and 1513, recounted in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure (1567). The Duchess was Giovanna d'Aragona, whose father, Arrigo d'Aragona, Marquis of Gerace, was an illegitimate son of Ferdinand I of Naples. Her husbands were Alfonso Piccolomini, Duke of Amalfi, and (as in the play) Antonio Bologna.

The play begins as a love story, with a Duchess who marries beneath her class and ends as a nightmarish tragedy as her two brothers exact their revenge, destroying themselves in the process.

Jacobean drama continued the trend of stage violence set by Elizabethan tragedy, under the influence of Seneca, and there is a great deal of violence and horror in the later scenes of the play.[3] Nevertheless, the complexity of some of its characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess and Webster's poetic language, give it interest and it is still performed.



  • Antonio Bologna. Antonio has recently returned from France, full of scorn for the Italian courtiers whom he sees as more corrupt than the French. Antonio is the steward of the Duchess of Malfi's palace. His honesty and good judge of character are characteristics that are well known to the other characters in the play. He accepts the Duchess' proposal of marriage because of her disposition, rather than her beauty. His status, being lower than that of the Duchess, hinders their relationship. Their marriage has to remain a secret, leaving him without the title or money of the Duchess. Bosola kills him, accidentally.
  • Delio. A courtier, who tries to woo Julia. A friend of Antonio, his purpose in the play is to be the sounding board for Antonio. He acts as a narrator and is privy to the secrets of Antonio’s marriage and children. (He is based on a historical character of the same name.)
  • Daniel de Bosola. A former servant of the Cardinal, now returned from a sentence of imprisonment in the galleys for murder. Sent by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess as her Provisor of Horse. [Note 1] He is employed by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess in hopes of keeping her away from marriage. He is involved in the murder of the Duchess, her children, Cariola, Antonio, the Cardinal, Ferdinand and a servant. Upon witnessing the nobility and fearlessness of the Duchess and Antonio facing their deaths, he then experiences guilt. Though he was the one who arranged her death, he then seeks to avenge it. Bosola can be considered the most complex character in the play since he goes from being a killer without remorse to being filled with regret. Being the malcontent, he tends to view things cynically and makes numerous critical comments on the nature of Renaissance society. He is frequently characterized by his melancholy. (He is based on the historical Daniele de Bozolo, about whom less is known.)
  • The Cardinal. The brother to the Duchess and Ferdinand. He is a corrupt, icy official in the Roman Catholic Church but as was frequently the case at the time, doesn't live a moral life; he has hired a spy to prey upon his sister and has a mistress. He is a part of the plot to spy upon the Duchess but he remains quiet, leaving others unaware that he is involved in the plotting. He shows little to no remorse or feelings of love or loyalty. The reasons for his dislike to his sister are not clear since he does not long for her love or money.(Historically, his name was Luigi or Lodovico.)
  • Ferdinand. The Duke of Calabria and twin brother of the Duchess. Unlike his rational brother the Cardinal, Ferdinand is given to fits of rage and violent outbursts. He is emotional and overreacts to an extent disproportionate to the perceived offence. Through the course of the play he loses his sanity but upon seeing his dead sister, regrets hiring Bosola to kill her. His insanity increases in severity and in this state of mind, he believes he is a wolf and digs up graves. (In reality, his name was Carlo and he was Marquis of Gerace.)
  • Castruchio. An old lord. His name is a play on the word "castrated", suggesting impotence. He belongs to the conventional character type of the elderly man with a young, unfaithful wife (Julia).
  • Roderigo. A courtier.
  • Grisolan. A courtier.
  • Silvio. A courtier.
  • Pescara. A marquis.
  • The Duchess. The protagonist, a young widow and the sister to Ferdinand and the Cardinal. At the beginning of the play, she is a widow in the prime of her life. Though her brothers take every precaution to keep her from marriage, she secretly marries Antonio. Her brothers hire someone to strangle her. She is described as having a sweet countenance and noble virtue. She is witty, clever and can keep up with her brothers’ banter. She contrasts her brothers in that she has a tenderness and warmth that they lack. She has three children in the play, two sons and a daughter by Antonio. There is an inconsistency surrounding earlier children by her deceased husband in the play, put down to a careless mistake by Webster.
  • Cariola. Duchess's waiting-woman and privy to the Duchess's secrets. She witnesses the Duchess's wedding and delivers her children. Dies tragically by strangling shortly after the Duchess and the youngest children. Her name is a play on the Italian carriolo meaning "trundle-bed", where personal servants would have slept.
  • Julia. Castruchio's wife and the Cardinal's mistress. She dies at the Cardinal's hands from a poisoned Bible.
  • Malateste. A hanger-on at the Cardinal's court. The name means 'headache'. Referred to as a "mere stick of sugar candy" by the Duchess, he is yet another interchangeable courtier designed to convey the sycophantic and superficial nature of the court of Malfi.
  • Doctor. Sent for to diagnose and remedy Ferdinand's madness and his supposed "lycanthropia".
  • There are also a variety of minor roles including couriers, servants, officers, a mistress, the children, executioners and various others. They are used as a literary device to further the plot or to perform small tasks that cannot be accomplished by a major role.

Main themes

The main themes of the play are: misuse of power, revenge, the status of women and the consequences which arise when they attempt to assert their authority in a patriarchal society, the argument of blood v. merit, the consequences of unequal marriage, cruelty, incest, corruption and the duties of a ruler.

Plot synopsis

The play is set in the court of Malfi (Amalfi), Italy over the period 1504 to 1510. The recently widowed Duchess falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, but her brothers, not wishing her to share their inheritance, forbid her from remarrying. She marries Antonio in secret and bears him several children.

The Duchess' lunatic and incestuously obsessed brother Ferdinand threatens and disowns her. In an attempt to escape, the Duchess and Antonio concoct a story that Antonio has swindled her out of her fortune and has to flee into exile. She takes Bosola into her confidence, not knowing that he is Ferdinand's spy and arranges that he will deliver her jewelry to Antonio at his hiding-place in Ancona. She will join them later, whilst pretending to make a pilgrimage to a town nearby. The Cardinal hears of the plan, instructs Bosola to banish the two lovers and sends soldiers to capture them. Antonio escapes with their eldest son but the Duchess, her maid and her two younger children are returned to Malfi and under instructions from Ferdinand, die at the hands of executioners under Bosola's command. This experience, combined with a long-standing sense of injustice and his own feeling of a lack of identity, turns Bosola against the Cardinal and his brother, deciding to take up the cause of "Revenge for the Duchess of Malfi" (V.2).

The Cardinal confesses to his mistress Julia his part in the killing of the Duchess and then murders her to silence her, using a poisoned Bible. Next, Bosola overhears the Cardinal plotting to kill him (though he accepts what he sees as punishment for his actions) and so visits the darkened chapel to kill the Cardinal at his prayers. Instead, he mistakenly kills Antonio, who has just returned to Malfi to attempt a reconciliation with the Cardinal. Bosola stabs the Cardinal, who dies. In the brawl that follows, Ferdinand and Bosola stab each other to death.

Antonio's elder son by the Duchess appears in the final scene and takes his place as the heir to the Malfi fortune, despite his father's explicit wish that his son "fly the court of princes", a corrupt and increasingly deadly environment.

Plot: Scene-by-scene breakdown

Act 1

Scene 1—The Duchess’s palace in Malfi: Antonio and Delio are discussing the former's return from France, and discussing how the French king runs his court, comparing it to an easily poisoned fountain. They are interrupted by the entry of Bosola and the Cardinal. Antonio and Delio hold their conversation, stepping to the background to watch as Bosola angrily tries to gain the Cardinal’s pardon, speaking of the time he has spent in the galleys in penal servitude, and in the service of the Cardinal. Bosola declares that he is surely done with service, but the Cardinal is not interested in Bosola’s new merit, and takes his leave. Bosola compares himself to Tantalus, never able to acquire the thing he most desires, like an injured soldier who can only depend on his crutches for support of any kind. When he leaves, Antonio and Delio comment on his past offense, and how he will surely come to no good if he is kept in neglect.

Scene 2-Ferdinand comes into the palace, talking to his courtiers about a tournament that Antonio has just won. When the Cardinal, Duchess and Cariola enter to speak with Ferdinand, Antonio and Delio have a moment to themselves to discuss the Cardinal’s character; he is found to be a very dishonest, disagreeable person, as is his brother, Ferdinand. Only their sister, the Duchess, earns the approval of everyone, a very pleasant and gracious woman. After the two gentlemen leave, Ferdinand petitions his sister to make Bosola the manager of her horses; when everyone else leaves, Ferdinand and the Cardinal reveal that it is because Bosola is to spy on their sister. When Bosola is brought in and made aware of this plan, he at first refuses, but ultimately is given no choice. The Cardinal and Ferdinand then turn their attention to their sister, urging her not to marry again, now that she is a widow, going so far as to threaten her with death, in Ferdinand’s case. She refuses to be bullied, and once her brothers are out of sight, she proposes to Antonio by giving him her wedding ring. Having Cariola, the Duchess' maid, as their witness, this private ceremony is legally binding and the Duchess and Antonio become husband and wife.

Act 2

Scene 1—The Duchess’s palace in Malfi, nine months later: Bosola and Castruchio enter, Bosola criticizing his companion’s appearance, and telling him that he would make a ridiculous judge. When an old woman intrudes on their conversation, Bosola’s insults turn on her, calling her hideous to the point that no amount of make-up would help. He also accuses her of being too like a witch; the old lady and Castruchio leave Bosola alone to muse on the mysterious way the Duchess is acting of late. He believes she is pregnant (no one but Delio and Cariola know that the Duchess and Antonio are married), and aims to prove it by using apricots both to spark her pregnant appetite and to induce labour, as apricots were believed to do. The Duchess, when she enters, accepts the fruit from Bosola, and quickly starts going into labour. She then retires to her chamber claiming to be ill, with a worried Antonio following in her wake.

Scene 2—Same place and time as the previous scene: Bosola, alone, realizes that the Duchess is indeed pregnant. After accosting the hapless old lady again, he watches as Antonio and the servants in a commotion about a Swiss mercenary who had invaded the Duchess’s room, and the loss of several jewels and gold utensils. Even with all the uproar, Antonio is not distracted from his wife’s “illness”; she is actually in labour. Cariola, the lady’s maid, enters with good news once Antonio is alone—he is the father of a son.

Scene 3—Same place and time as the previous scene: Bosola re-enters the now empty room, having heard a woman (the Duchess) shriek. Antonio discovers him, and questions his purpose in being there, since everyone had been commanded to keep to their rooms. Antonio tells him to stay away from the Duchess, since he doesn’t trust Bosola. In Antonio’s agitation, he accidentally drops a horoscope for his son’s birth, which Bosola retrieves. He realizes what it means, and resolves to send it to the Duchess’ brothers with Castruchio.

Scene 4—The Cardinal’s rooms: The Cardinal and his mistress, Julia, are discussing their rendezvous, when a messenger calls the Cardinal away with an important message. Delio enters to find Julia alone. He was once a suitor of hers, and offers her money. Julia leaves to meet her husband, Castruchio, and Delio fears that her husband’s arrival means Antonio’s secret marriage is about to be revealed.

Scene 5—Rome, in Ferdinand’s private apartments: An enraged Ferdinand, with the letter from Bosola, and his brother the Cardinal, meet to discuss what they think is an awful treachery by their sister. Ferdinand is angry to the point of shouting about his sister’s “whorish” behaviour (he knows of the child, but not of the marriage), and the Cardinal struggles to control his brother’s temperamental outburst. Ferdinand resolves to discover the man his sister is seeing, threatening all and sundry.

Act 3

Scene 1—The Duchess’s palace in Malfi, after some time has passed: Antonio greets the returning Delio, who has come from Rome with Ferdinand. Antonio reveals that the Duchess has had two more children in the time Delio was gone. Antonio fears the wrath of the recently arrived Ferdinand, and Delio tells him the ordinary people think the Duchess is a whore. While they talk, the Duchess and Ferdinand enter. He tells her that he has found a husband for her, the Count Malateste. She disregards this, as she is already married (still secretly of course) to Antonio. When left alone, Ferdinand consults with Bosola in order to discover the father of the three seemingly illegitimate children; Bosola has acquired a skeleton key to the Duchess’s room, which Ferdinand takes, telling him to guess what will happen next.

Scene 2—The Duchess’s bedchamber: Antonio comes up to the Duchess’s bedroom to spend the night, and they banter back and forth about the point of lovers just sleeping together. Antonio and Cariola leave to allow the Duchess to complete her night-time preparations, but she is not alone; Ferdinand sneaks in and startles her. He gives her a knife, intending her to kill herself, and his fury increases when she tells him she is married without his knowledge. Ferdinand leaves, declaring he will never see her again. He exits just in time, for Antonio bursts in brandishing a pistol, but the Duchess forces him to leave again when Bosola knocks at the door. Bosola informs the Duchess that Ferdinand has left for Rome again, and she tells him that Ferdinand’s bills of exchange (he has so far dealt with her accounts) will no longer work, since Antonio has been false with her accounts. This is, of course, a trick to get Antonio out of Malfi; she calls Antonio back in (once Bosola exits) to tell him to flee to Ancona, where she will send him all her treasure and valuables. The couple put on a show argument for the benefit of the returning Bosola and officers, where she criticizes his faulty record keeping and banishes him. Bosola does not believe the Duchess was justified in banishing Antonio, and tells her that Antonio is a good, honest man. This speech prompts the Duchess to confide the secret marriage to Bosola. He is then left on stage to lament his role as a spy, for now he must reveal all to Ferdinand.

Scene 3—A room in a palace at Rome: The Cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste, Pescara, Silvio and Delio are discussing the new fortifications that are being made in Naples. Ferdinand and his men, leaving the Cardinal and Malateste to speak privately, are very harsh in their critique of Malateste, considering him too cowardly to fight in an upcoming battle. Bosola, meanwhile, interrupts the Cardinals private conference with news of his sister. The Cardinal leaves to petition for her and her family’s exile from Ancona, while Bosola goes to tell the Duchess’s first child (from her first husband) what has happened with his mother. Ferdinand goes to find Antonio.

Scene 4—The shrine of Our Lady of Loreto, Italy, in the Ancona province: Two pilgrims are visiting the shrine in Ancona, and witness the Cardinal being symbolically prepared for war. The Cardinal then proceeds to take the Duchess’s wedding ring, banish her, Antonio, and their children, while the pilgrims muse over the reason for what they have just seen.

Scene 5—Near Loreto: The newly banished family, and the maid Coriola, enter Loreto. Shortly after their arrival, Bosola comes and presents the Duchess with a letter from Ferdinand, which indirectly states that Ferdinand wants Antonio dead. Antonio tells Bosola that he will not go to Ferdinand, and the Duchess urges him to take the oldest child and go to Milan to find safety, which he promptly does. Bosola and masked guards then take the Duchess and her remaining children captive, on the orders of her brothers.

Act 4

Scene 1—A prison (or the Duchess’s lodgings serving as a prison) near Loreto: Ferdinand comes in with Bosola, who is describing to him how the Duchess is dealing with her imprisonment. It seems she is not affected to Ferdinand’s satisfaction, and he leaves angrily. Bosola greets the Duchess, telling her that her brother wishes to speak with her, but will not do so where he can see her. She agrees to meet with her brother in the darkness. Once the lights are out, Ferdinand returns. He presents her with a dead man’s hand, leading her to believe that it is Antonio’s, with her wedding ring on it. He then exits, leaving Bosola to show the Duchess life-like figures of her husband and children, made to appear as though her family was dead. The Duchess believes them to be the genuine articles, and resolves to die—her despair is so deep it affects Bosola. When she leaves, Ferdinand re-enters; Bosola pleads with him to send his sister to a convent, refusing to be a part of the plot anymore. Ferdinand is beyond reason at this point, and tells Bosola to go to Milan to find the real Antonio.

Scene 2—Same place and time as the previous scene: The Duchess and her maid, Coriola, come back, distracted by the noises being made by a group of madmen (Ferdinand brought them in to terrorize her). A servant tells her that they were brought for sport, and lets in several of the madmen. Bosola, too, sneaks in with them, disguised as an old man, and tells the Duchess that he is there to make her tomb. When she tries to pull rank on him, executioners with cords and a coffin come in. Coriola is removed from the room, leaving Bosola and the executioners with the Duchess. The Duchess makes a brave show, telling the executioners to “pull, and pull strongly”, welcoming her strangulation. Coriola is brought back, and after struggling fiercely, she too is strangled. Ferdinand comes to view the scene, and is also shown the bodies of his sister’s children, who were murdered as well. Ferdinand reveals that he and the Duchess were twins, and that he had hoped, if she had remained a widow, to inherit all her wealth. Bosola, sensing that Ferdinand is ready to turn on him next, demands payment for his atrocities. Ferdinand, distracted, leaves him alone with the bodies. Astonishingly, the Duchess is not dead! A shocked Bosola has no time to call for medicine; he manages to tell the Duchess that Antonio is not really dead; that the figures she saw were fake, before she finally dies. Bosola, remorseful at last, takes her body to the care of some good women, planning to leave immediately thereafter for Milan.

Act 5

Scene 1—Outside Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s palace in Milan: Antonio returns to see if he can reconcile with Ferdinand and the Cardinal, but Delio is dubious as to the wisdom of this. Delio asks Pescara, a marquis, to give him possession of Antonio’s estate for safekeeping, but Pescara denies him. Julia presents Pescara with a letter from the Cardinal, which states that she should receive Antonio’s property, and which Pescara grants to her. When Delio confronts him about this, Pescara says that he would not give an innocent man a property that was taken from someone by such vile means (the Cardinal took the property for himself once Antonio was banished), for it will now become an appropriate place for the Cardinal’s mistress. This statement impresses the hidden Antonio. When Pescara leaves to visit an ill Ferdinand, Antonio decides to pay a night-time visit to the Cardinal.

Scene 2—Inside the same palace: Pescara, come to visit Ferdinand, is discussing his condition with the doctor, who believes Ferdinand may have lycanthropia: a condition whereby he believes he is a wolf. The doctor thinks there is a chance of a relapse, in which case Ferdinand's diseased behaviour would return; namely, digging up dead bodies at night. Pescara and the doctor make way for the mad Ferdinand, who attacks his own shadow. The Cardinal, who has entered with Ferdinand, manages to catch Bosola, who has been watching Ferdinand’s ravings. The Cardinal assigns Bosola to seek out Antonio (by following Delio) and then slay him. After the Cardinal leaves, Bosola does not even make it to the door before he is stopped by Julia, who is brandishing a pistol. She accuses him of having given her a love potion, and threatens to kill him to end her love. Bosola manages to disarm her and convince her to gather intelligence for him about the Cardinal. Bosola then hides while Julia uses all of her persuasive powers to get the Cardinal to reveal his part in the death of his sister and her children. The Cardinal then makes Julia swear to keep silent, forcing her to kiss the poisoned cover of a bible, causing her to die almost instantly. Bosola comes out of hiding to confront the Cardinal, although he declares that he still intends to kill Antonio. Giving him a master key, the Cardinal takes his leave. However, once he is alone, Bosola swears to protect Antonio, and goes off to bury Julia’s body.

Scene 3—A courtyard outside the same palace: Delio and Antonio are near the Duchess’s tomb; as they talk, an echo from the tomb mirrors their conversation. Delio leaves to find Antonio’s eldest son, and Antonio leaves to escape the distressing echo of his wife’s resting place.

Scene 4—The Cardinal’s apartments in Milan: The Cardinal enters, trying to dissuade Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo and Grisolan from staying to keep watch over Ferdinand. He goes so far as to say that he might feign mad fits to test their obedience; if they come to help, they will be in trouble. They unwillingly exit, and Bosola enters to find the Cardinal planning to have him killed. Antonio, unaware of Bosola, sneaks in while it is dark, planning to seek audience with the Cardinal. Not realizing who has entered, Bosola attacks Antonio; he is horrified to see his mistake. He manages to relate the death of the Duchess and children to the dying Antonio, who is glad to be dying in sadness, now that life is pointless for him. Bosola then leaves to bring down the Cardinal.

Scene 5—The same apartments, near Julia’s lodging: The Cardinal, unaware of what has just happened, is reading a book when Bosola enter with a servant, who is bearing Antonio’s body. He threatens the Cardinal, who calls for help. Help is not forthcoming, for the gentlemen from the beginning of the previous scene; while they can hear him calling, have no desire to go to his aid (because of his previous order to not any cost try to help Ferdinand). Bosola kills the servant of the Cardinal first, and then stabs the Cardinal. Ferdinand bursts in, also attacking his brother; in the fight, he accidentally wounds Bosola. Bosola kills Ferdinand, and is left with the dying Cardinal. The gentlemen who heard the cries now enter the room to witness the deaths of the Cardinal and Bosola. Delio enters too late with Antonio’s eldest son, and laments the unfortunate events that have passed.

Historical staging

Set and Props: As this play would have first been produced in the Globe, the set would probably been a bare stage with movable set pieces such as tables, stools, beds, hangings, and altars, all of which would have been stock pieces used in every show. Props would also have been minimal, with essentials like swords, pistols, and candles, and dummies.

Lighting: Lighting for a theatre like the Globe is completely dependent upon the sun. Performances would occur in the afternoon so as to see the performers since no other sources of lighting were accessible.

Costumes: This was the Jacobean era, and Renaissance clothing, often hand-me-downs from noble patrons, would have been appropriate during this time. Especially since this play takes place among wealthy, prestigious characters who belong to The Royal Court, there would have been long dresses with elaborate sleeves and headpieces for most female characters, and form fitting tunics for most of the men as a general rule. Men would wear hose and codpieces, very royal members of The Court might wear jackets with stuffed (bombast) sleeves, and both men and women would be able to wear clothing with some type of color to it. Due to the sumptuary laws, deep purple was restricted to the nobility of the times. During this time period, women were not allowed to appear on stage. Because of this, men often performed as women on stage. Padding would be built into their costumes, their heads would be adorned with wigs, and extra make-up would be applied to their faces.

Music: Music would be played in the musicians' gallery located in the balcony of the theatre, where actors would also perform, depending upon space. An orchestra consisted of six instruments, including trumpets, recorders, and drums. This would be played for entrances, introductions, and battle scenes.

The 1623 quarto

The first printed edition contains a combined cast list for two productions of The Duchess of Malfi by the King's Men, c. 1614 and c. 1621, providing valuable information about the structure and evolution of the key dramatic company of the era. The printer was a Nicholas Okes, and the publisher John Waterson. Webster dedicated the play to George Harding, 8th Baron Berkeley, a noted patron of literature in his era. The phrasing of Webster's dedication indicates that the dramatist was soliciting the Baron's patronage, rather than acknowledging support already given; it is unknown to what degree that solicitation was successful.

Reception and performance history

The play was written for and performed by the King's Men in 1613 or 1614. The double cast lists included in the 1623 quarto suggest a revival around 1619. Contemporary reference also indicated that the play was performed in 1618, for in that year Orazio Busino, Venetian ambassador to England, complained of the play's treatment of Catholics in the character of the Cardinal.

The quarto's cast list allows more precision about casting than is usually available. Richard Burbage and Joseph Taylor successively played Ferdinand to Henry Condell's Cardinal. John Lowin played Bosola; William Ostler was Antonio. Boy player Richard Sharpe originated the title role. Nicholas Tooley played Forobosco, and Robert Pallant doubled numerous minor roles, including Cariola.

The quarto title page announces that the play was performed at both the Globe Theatre and at Blackfriars; however, in tone and in some details of staging (particularly the use of special lighting effects) the play is clearly meant primarily for the indoor stage.[4] Robert Johnson, a regular composer for Blackfriars, wrote incidental music for the play and composed a setting for the "madmen's song" in Act 4.[4]

The play is known to have been performed for Charles at the Cockpit-in-Court in 1630; there is little reason to doubt that it was performed intermittently throughout the period.

The play remained current through the first part of the Restoration. Samuel Pepys reports seeing the play several times; it was performed by the Duke of York's company under Thomas Betterton.

By the early eighteenth century, Webster's violence and sexual frankness had gone out of taste. In 1733, Lewis Theobald wrote and directed an adaptation, The Fatal Secret; the play imposed neoclassical unities on the play, for instance by eliminating the Duchess's child and preserving the Duchess at the end. By mid-century, the play had fallen with Webster out of the repertory, where it stayed until the Romantic revival of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt.

In 1850, after a generation of critical interest and theatrical neglect, the play was staged by Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells, with Isabella Glyn in the title role. The text was adapted by Richard Henry Horne. The production was favorably reviewed by The Athenaeum; George Henry Lewes, however, registered disapproval of the play's violence and what he termed its shoddy construction: "Instead of ‘holding the mirror up to nature,’ this drama holds the mirror up to Madame Tussauds." These would become the cornerstones of criticisms of Webster for the next century. Still, the play was popular enough for Glyn to revive her performance periodically for the next two decades.

Shortly after, Duchess came to the United States. Working with Horne's text, director James Stark staged a production in San Francisco; this version is noteworthy for a sentimental apotheosis Stark added, in which the Duchess and Ferdinand are reunited in heaven. The most popular American productions, however, were produced by Wilmarth Waller and his wife Emma.

William Poel staged the play at the Opera Comique in 1892, with Mary Rorke as the Duchess and Murray Carson as Bosola. Poel's playscript followed Webster's text closely apart from scene rearrangements; however, reaction had set in, and the production received generally scathing reviews. William Archer, England's chief proponent of Ibsen's new drama, took advantage of the occasion to lambast what he saw as the overestimation of Elizabethan theater in general.

In 1919, the Phoenix Society revived the play in London for the first time in two decades. The production featured Cathleen Nesbitt as the Duchess; Robert Farquharson played Ferdinand. The production was widely disparaged. For many of the newspaper critics, the failure indicated that Webster had become a "curio"; T. S. Eliot, conversely, argued that the production had failed to uncover the elements that made Webster a great dramatist--specifically his poetry. A 1935 production at the Embassy Theatre received similarly negative reviews; Ivor Brown noted that the audience left "rather with superior smiles than with emotional surrender." In 1938, a production was broadcast on BBC television; it was no better received than the previous two stage productions.

In the aftermath of World War II, George Rylands directed a production at the Haymarket Theatre that at last caught the public mood. John Gielgud, as Ferdinand, accentuated the element of incestuous passion in that character's treatment of the Duchess (played by Peggy Ashcroft). Cecil Trouncer was Bosola. Edmund Wilson was perhaps the first to note that the play struck an audience differently in the wake of the revelation of the Holocaust; this note is, from 1945 on, continually struck in discussions of the appropriateness of Webster for the modern age. A 1946 production on Broadway did not fare as well; Rylands attempted to duplicate his London staging with John Carradine as Ferdinand and Elisabeth Bergner as the Duchess. W. H. Auden adapted Webster's text for the modern audience. However, the production's most notable innovation was in the character of Bosola, which was played by Canada Lee in whiteface. The production received savage reviews from the popular press, and it fared little better in the literary reviews.

The first successful postwar performance in America was staged at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre in 1957. Directed by Jack Landau, who had earlier staged a brief but well-reviewed White Devil, the production emphasized (and succeeded as) Grand Guignol. As Walter Kerr put it, "Blood runs right over the footlights, spreads slowly up the aisle and spills well out into Second Avenue."

Ashcroft returned as the Duchess in a 1960 production at the Aldwych Theatre. The play was directed by Donald McWhinnie; Eric Porter played Ferdinand and Max Adrian the Cardinal. Patrick Wymark played Bosola. The production received generally favorable but lukewarm reviews. In 1971, Clifford Williams directed the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Judi Dench took the title role, with Geoffrey Hutchings as Bosola and Emrys James as the Cardinal. Dench's husband Michael Williams played Ferdinand, casting which highlighted the sexual element of the play's siblings.

In 1980, Adrian Noble directed the play at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. This production received excellent notices; it was transferred to London, where it won the London Drama Critic's Award for best play. Helen Mirren played the title role; Mike Gwilym played Ferdinand, and Bob Hoskins played Bosola. Pete Postlethwaite was Antonio. Mirren's performance received special acclaim.

The actor-centered troupe led by Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge chose Webster's play as one of their first productions. The production premiered in January 1986 in the Lyttelton Theatre of the Royal National Theatre. Philip Prowse's direction was highly stylized, the scenic backdrop segmented, and the actors' movements tightly controlled. The result, as Jarka Burian noted, was "a unified, consistent mise-en-scene...without enough inner turbulence to create a completely satisfying theatre experience." Eleanor Bron played the Duchess; McKellen played Bosola, Jonathan Hyde Ferdinand, and Petheridge the Cardinal.

In 2010, the production was staged for Stage on Screen at the Greenwich Theatre, London. It was directed by Elizabeth Freestone and starred Aislin McGuckin in a production that set the play in the first half of the twentieth century. In The Guardian, the reviewer noted that 'Much of the pleasure of this revival lies in re-encountering Webster's language...full of savage poetry.' The production is now available on DVD.

In July 2010, English National Opera and Punchdrunk collaborated to stage the production, which had been commissioned by the ENO from composer Torsten Rasch. The production was staged in a promenade style and performed at a mysterious vacant site at Great Eastern Quay in London's Royal Albert Basin.

Media adaptations

  • Opera - Stephen Oliver's The Duchess of Malfi, staged at Oxford in 1971.
  • Television - In 1972, produced by the BBC
  • Television - A Question of Happiness #1: A Question About Hell, an adaptation by Kingsley Amis in which the names of all the characters are changed
  • Audio - In 1980, produced by the BBC
  • Recording - (excerpts only) In 1952, read by Dylan Thomas by Caedmon[5]
  • Recording - (full dramatization) In 1969 by Caedmon starring Barbara Jefford as the Duchess, Alec McCowen as Ferdinand, Robert Stephens as Bosola and Jeremy Brett as Antonio.
  • DVD - 2010, Stage on Screen, with Aislin McGuckin (Duchess), Tim Treolar (Bosola), Tim Steed (Ferdinand) and Mike Hadfield (Cardinal).

In popular culture

  • Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (Williams, Collins Sons & Co Ltd. 1976) uses the lines Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young as the novel's central refrain.
  • Cover Her Face by P. D. James (initial copyright 1962) uses the first part of the quote as the title and as a comment made by the first witness on the scene of a young murdered woman.
  • The Skull Beneath the Skin by P. D. James centers around an aging actress who plans to perform The Duchess of Malfi in a Victorian castle theatre. The novel takes its title from T. S. Eliot's famous characterization of Webster's work in his poem 'Whispers of Immortality'.
  • Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice uses the lines Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young, as a quote from Lestat to his vampire child, Claudia.
  • Echo & the Bunnymen mentioned this play along with John Webster and The White Devil in their song "My White Devil" on their Porcupine album.
  • Volume 2 of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time includes a visit to a performance of the play, where the minor character Moreland is in love with the actress playing Julia.


  1. ^ Equestrian steward; one who had the care of providing for her stables.


  1. ^ Drabble, Margaret, ed (2000). "Duchess of Malfi, The". The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ Clark, Sandra (2007). Renaissance Drama. Cambridge, England: Polity. p. 12. ISBN 0-745-63311-0. 
  3. ^ Jack, Ian. "The Case of John Webster." Scrutiny XVI (1949): 43.
  4. ^ a b Brown, John Russell (1997). The Duchess of Malfi. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. p. 25. ISBN 0-7190-4357-3. 
  5. ^ See for additional info

External links

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